Emma Pearmaine: Families deserve a legal service that’s affordable

Pictured posed by model. Justice demands that law firms take on legal aid cases.
Pictured posed by model. Justice demands that law firms take on legal aid cases.
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PEOPLE choose a legal career for numerous reasons but, in my experience, those who find themselves practising family law are more compassionate than most.

They want to help people overcome some of the most personal and difficult challenges in life, and then to move forward. Sadly, many family lawyers now find themselves having to turn away people who can’t afford their services because legal aid either isn’t available for their case or it is viewed simply as too unprofitable to justify doing the work.

Law firms are under pressure to commoditise their services and are more profit-driven than ever before. But is it really not possible to turn a profit while allocating a proportion of fee earning time to legal aid funded services? Of course it is. And we have a moral duty as lawyers to do so.

The success of any organisation is a function of whether they are able to provide a good service to their customers, and to do so economically.

As director of family services in a law firm which is owned by an AIM listed company, I am acutely aware of the responsibility my department has to secure a return for our investors. But I remain steadfast in my conviction that legal advice must always remain available to those in the greatest need and it can be delivered profitably.

Indeed, Simpson Millar has a long history of trying to increase access to legal services to a broad range of consumers. Originally this was focused on working with union members to help protect employees, and to this day our mission continues to focus on promoting access to legal services.

The new limits on legal aid has made it increasingly challenging to provide services to customers economically, but it has also encouraged businesses to find innovative ways of providing services to customers at lower cost. Although every case is different, we have been able to break down the work involved in providing various components of support, and attach a price to each of these parts.

Customers can then pick and choose which elements of service they require, and can afford.

Family law cases funded by legal aid now consist largely of cases where social services are involved with children of the family or those where domestic violence features in evidence. Parents need their voices to be heard when the courts are making decisions about the long-term care of their children.

Further, survivors of domestic violence and abuse need legal help and support to enable them to free themselves of a life of abuse and start a new, or the suffering will continue.

Although I work with a number of amazing voluntary organisations whose efforts are relentless and remarkable, the Government is increasingly distributing what should be a shared responsibility of society amongst a growing network of charities run by volunteers on shoe-string budgets.

Charities can provide amazing practical help, support and advice, but when it comes to addressing the most complex and crucial aspects of family disputes in the long term, people need access to real legal expertise.

Of my national department’s substantial turnover, we dedicate 30 per cent to legal aid work. Yes, this work is significantly more difficult to deliver profitably. But when it comes to the service we deliver and the advice we provide, I firmly believe that there should be no differentiation between legal aid and privately paying clients.

People should be represented based on their legal challenges and needs and it is for law firms to look at innovative ways of working to maintain revenue generation. Yet, as it stands, many people are left to navigate the legal system alone.

I see the impact of Government restrictions on legal aid every single day at work. People who would once have qualified for funding are no longer eligible, but they still come to us for help. Vulnerable mothers who are struggling to meet the needs of their children following separation. They desperately need legal support to access remedies in the family court for spousal maintenance or to be allowed to remain in the family home with the children. Are we really the kind of society where help is beyond reach for them?

By focusing on our clients and adopting new ways of working, I believe we are balancing our ethical duty of care to our clients with shareholder needs. Our credibility in the legal market place arises from our ability to do that by focusing on our corporate values: working smarter, doing the right thing, working together, making a difference, finding needs-based solutions and doing all of that with empathy.

I firmly believe that it is possible to strike an ethical balance between providing private services, discounted services for those who are financially challenged, and legal aid services whilst still meeting investment market expectations.

It is disappointing to see so many large firms no longer taking on their share of the responsibility to ensure access to justice is available to all.

Emma Pearmaine is director of family services at law firm Simpson Millar.